by Arthur C Clarke
You may have noticed that I’ve been spending the past few weeks reading science “stuff”, and that includes both fact and fiction. Today, I’d like to share with you a book by one of my favourite sci-fi authors.
Arthur C Clarke, like Isaac Asimov (another favourite), was a scientist. During World War II he was involved in the development of radar and studied for a degree in maths and physics only after the war had ended. He is probably best known for his screenplay (shared) of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey.
‘ “On that day,” said Karellen, “the human race will experience what can only be called a psychological discontinuity. But no permanent harm will be done; the men of that age will be more stable than their grandfathers.” ‘
In Childhood’s End, the Earth is ruled – or rather ‘supervised’ – by the Overlords, an alien species who seek to end wars and crime, and to bring peace and stability to the planet. No one has seen an Overlord; their representative Karellen communicates to the human race through Stormgren, Director-General of the UN but Stormgren has only ever heard his voice. Alien rule is benevolent and there are only a relative few dissenters whom Karellen is well able to keep under observation and control by the use of advanced technology.
Karellen promises that the Overlords will reveal themselves to mankind in 50 years time and, indeed, they keep their promise. To describe an Overlord would be a spoiler, so I shall say only that their appearance might, in some people, awake ancient fears and dreams. However, the Revelation (another good word) sees the dawn of a golden age.
‘Out of the orifice, a wide, glittering gangway extruded itself and drove purposefully towards the ground…… The world was watching that dark portal, within which nothing had stirred. Then the ….. sound of Karellen floated softly down from some hidden source.’
In the central section of the book, Clarke introduces several new characters. Of particular relevance to the story are Rupert Boyce and his wife Maia, her brother Jan Rodricks, and some of their party guests: George Greggson, Jean Morrel and Rashaverak (an Overlord), who visits the Boyces so he can read all the books in George’s library of paranormal literature. Jan is not content to be a mere ‘subject’ of the Overlords but wants to know all about them and where they come from. At the conclusion of his party, Rupert organises a séance, at which Jan poses the question ‘Which star is the Overlords’ sun?’ Mysteriously, the plate spells out the answer ‘NGS 549672’.
‘….what you have brought into the world may be utterly alien, it may share none of your desires and hopes, it may look upon your greatest achievements as childish toys – yet it is something wonderful and you will have created it.’
Jan resolves to go there and stows away in one of the Overlords returning starships. He realises that more than 80 years will pass on Earth while he is away but he has no wife or responsibilities so that doesn’t really matter. His departure and the Overlords’ discovery of it leads to the unfolding of the final act. Meantime, Jeffrey Greggson, the young son of George and Jean, is developing strange powers.
What is happening to the human race? What kind of future is in store for us? Why have the Overlords really come to Earth?
These are questions that WILL be answered eventually but will we – will Jan Rodricks – be here to hear the answers?
Childhood’s End is not a conventional sci-fi work. It’s true there are aliens and space travel, but the novel has a philosophical and moralistic edge to it, not to mention the psychic stuff. Clarke was a member of the British Interplanetary Society and had a lifelong interest in astronomy and space travel. However, he was also curious, though sceptical, about the paranormal and used his interest to good effect in this intriguing novel.
‘Far down in the rock, the segments of uranium began to rush together, seeking the union they could never achieve. And the Island rose to meet the dawn.’